If you have ever been involved with your organization’s strategic planning process (and I’m assuming you have), you may have had concerns about the overlay of activity on an already high-tempo organization.
However, there is wisdom to the time commitment required in strategic planning. The process of creating the strategic plan necessitates a deep and extended encounter with the organization’s mission, vision, and goals—as well as meaningful interactions among the stakeholders.
Beginning with my first strategic planning engagement, I knew the process was as important as the resulting plan. Being a process person by nature, what could be better?
How the Process Pays Off—an Illustration
Let’s fast-forward through the entire strategic planning process to the time after the board of directors has officially adopted the plan. With the planning process complete and plan in hand, implementation begins. During the first year of implementation, I maintain contact with my clients at regular intervals. Part of it is curiosity—how is it going? Part of it is to remind them that the strategic plan is a living document. But the most important part of it is to provide continuing support and encouragement as they weave the plan into their day-to-day operations and its monitor progress.
Several years ago, I was meeting with a client’s board chair and executive director at the end of the first year of implementing their strategic plan. They began with a general update on the organization—the reorganization of progams and staff, the rotation on the board of directors and new directors, the increased focus on individual giving. They were animated and enthusiastic. They described an organization finding balance and more solid footing than had been the case during the planning process. They described an organization that was moving toward its envisioned future. Having reread the strategic plan the night before this meeting, I was fully aware that they were working the plan successfully.
When they concluded the update, I asked how the board of directors was doing at monitoring the plan. Glances passed between the executive director and the board chair. It was as if they were visually deciding who had drawn the short straw—who would have to confess that, since our prior check-in, they had dropped the ball. No recent status reports to keep the board apprised of progress. No recent updates at staff meetings to celebrate successes or contemplate impediments. No recent review of the stewardship responsibilities to be sure the appropriate parties were following through on assigned initiatives.
However, I could ease their worries. The magic resulting from the planning process was evident. The plan was simply the record, the outcome, of the process. I was happy to let these thoughtful leaders know that, while they had missed a few beats monitoring implementation, they were making progress. They were advancing the organization toward the strategic vision—action by action, strategy by strategy, goal by goal.
Why, despite the lapse in monitoring implementation, had they made progress?
Reason 1: The Plan Is Internalized Through the Process
This organization was organically making decisions based on the plan. They knew the priorities. All the reflection, all the brainstorming, all the stretching and looking to the future stayed with them. So had all the thinking about success measures and timing. Through the iterative nature of the strategic planning process, it was all ingrained.
Reason 2: The Planning Process Solidifies the Team
While having different roles in the process, board members and staff collaborated. Each group brought its unique perspectives on the organization. The board exercised its fiduciary responsibility of holding the organization in trust for future generations. The staff contributed its front line knowledge of clients’ needs and delivering on the mission. They had merged their talents to further the organization.
Reason 3: The Planning Process Creates a Sense of Forward Momentum
During the planning process, this board of directors had a hard time thinking beyond their current difficult circumstances. The economy was in a bad place and their funding was tenuous. It was a challenge for them to imagine returning to financial stability. Through this strategic planning process, I helped the board foresee the future they sought for the organization and develop a plan that was optimistic and balanced.
All’s Well that Ends Well
I wanted the leaders of this organization to take pride in their accomplishments. They had come a long way during the first year of implementing the strategic plan. I recommended that they reconvene the strategic planning task force to review the plan and take up the role of keeping tabs on monitoring the implementation schedule. I urged them to go through the plan and update it, record the accomplishments, share the successes with the board of directors and staff, and get back on track with the monitoring schedule that I had provided along with the strategic plan implementation guide.
Winston Churchill said, “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.”
It is my experience, however, that they are both essential. The plan is so much more effective because of the planning process. It is the brainchild created from the process.
I counsel my clients that when organizations try to truncate the strategic planning process, something vital is lost or left out. It may be external stakeholder engagement, rigorous discussion about the internal and external environments, or time to contemplate the future in a realistic, yet visionary, way. By trusting the process, and not rushing it, leaders benefit from deeper connection to the mission, and the organization advances with a renewed sense of purpose.